Real Talk: Miss Representation10:35:00 AM
The need for diversity in YA is important and real, and the more people that recognize the need for it, the more likely we are to see a shift in patterns sooner rather than later.
Trust me. I know I am probably preaching to the choir here. I know how many discussion posts there are in the blogosphere that cry out for a need for more diversity. But I figure, the more voices there are calling attention to an important issue, the more minds we are likely to change. So here’s my two cents on the subject.
Growing up, I was obsessed with Disney princesses like most little girls often are. My favorite was Ariel for a long time, because she was a mermaid and that alone was the only reason I liked her so much. But then there was a phase I went through when I would watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame nonstop, and for one reason only: Esmeralda. You see, I’m Hispanic and never had anyone else to look up to who was Hispanic who wasn’t my mom or my abuela. Because of this, for whatever reason, I assumed Esmeralda was Latina. It was probably the fact that her hair was dark and thick and curly and that she was of a darker complexion than the other Disney princesses. (I was also maybe three years old at the time and only knew the languages of English and Spanish, very naively assuming those were the only two languages in existence… completely oblivious to any of the historical or cultural background to Hunchback whatsoever. Romani like Esmeralda were of Romanian background, certainly not Spanish.)
My point to this long-winded anecdote from my childhood is that children and young, impressionable pre-teens (and even teenagers, too) will always look for themselves in whatever they are watching and reading. Whether consciously or subconsciously, it’s just human nature to look for similarities in others when we want to associate with them. So when kids only see pretty, fair skinned, slim people represented in popular media, it doesn’t do much to bolster their sense of self-esteem or belonging. To totally quote the Grisha books and one of my favorite ever characters, Baghra: Like calls to like. We seek out similarities in those we want to be like or the people we want to surround ourselves with. It’s basic psychology, and inhibiting that will only lead to discouragement.
It discourages us to be who we are, because it ostracizes us. It discourages us to express our culture and diversity, pushing it to the side instead of celebrating that which makes us different. It tells younger kids of color that their skin is not worthy of praise and beauty, that their culture is a joke, that their traditions and heritage are no longer relevant in the broad scope of history. Whitewashing in popular media is evident everywhere, no matter where you turn there will always be someone prettier, lighter, skinnier, more different than you are. And I have seen that play into books a lot recently.
What makes me happy is the fact that diversity is on the rise in YA. What makes me sad, however, is how little there is right now. When the biggest books-turned-movies consistently cast white actors and actresses to fill roles and replace background POC, it sends the message that we are not enough for the general masses to accept. Are we really that different that we must be ashamed of our appearances, that we are overshadowed in favor of bigger names? To what end, profit? Look at movies like The Force Awakens and tell me a diverse cast won’t make money. Now look at movies like The 5th Wave and tell me why casting an Apache and Chinese girl, Ringer, as a white, blonde girl was necessary.
Where is the love for black girls with natural, nappy hair and beautiful melanin-rich skin? Where is the love for Hispanic girls with backgrounds ranging from Mexican to Venezuelan to Puerto Rican to Dominican, with bigger hips and a language unique to each background? Where is the love for Asian girls from China, Japan, Korea, India, and their fiery spirit, their midnight black hair, their eyes that always smile? Where is the love for main characters of mixed race, rather than secondary characters just added to increase the cast’s diversity?
We are not a minority because we are small in numbers. We are called a minority because the majority is the race that has, by definition, gained the upper hand. There needs to be a bigger call for diversity in YA because the audience is widely comprised of young girls. Young girls – and boys, too – need to see themselves represented and fitting into a setting that shows them “look, you are equally as capable as being the hero as any other person is.”
We are all different, and that’s what makes us special. That makes us capable of being our own heroes.